There are audio events within the recording career of composer, film sound-tracker and partially reformed noise freak SFT (aka Simon Fisher Turner) which seem to account for him as a one man sound clash between La Monte Young and Iggy Pop. Fierce dissonance is applied with formidable restraint, as if The Godfather Of Punk had been produced with great strictness by The Godfather Of Minimalism.
On his new album for Mute, 2002’s “Swift”, there looms a piece which defies any such idea, the gracefully floating, dappled piano and clarinets of ‘Sandsong’. Again, it’s apparent that Fisher Turner has eluded categorisation and set himself magnificently adrift.
Across the six soundtracks he created for Derek Jarman, the three later solo albums for Mute and the vast miscellany of other projects, from art installations to music for film and TV, Fisher Turner has demonstrated unprecedented sonic valour. For Jarman, he took on neo-medieval madrigals, total deconstruction and profound emotional cradling. His earlier solo albums “Shwarma” and “Oh Venus” ranged from travelogue disorientation to freeform tech symphonies. “Swift” extends his work deeper into the unmapped territories.
If there’s a location for Fisher Turner’s work it might be somewhere near the zone defined by renowned trumpet player John Hassell as the Fourth World - a place where cultures and techniques mix without compromise. To include Fisher Turner, however, the borders would have to be open enough to accommodate The Aphex Twin, Terry Riley, Black Dog, John Lydon, Howie B, Harold Budd, Miles Davis, The Prodigy, Eno and a restless host of cor anglais wielders and teletext machine tapers.
Possibly the least didactic musician on the planet, Fisher Turner asks questions and opens doors at every turn. He seems equally fascinated by harmony and dissonance. The vistas opened up by “Swift” are graphically real, almost familiar, but at the same time alien and confusing. Half-listening is not an option. Fisher Turner doesn’t do ambient. With a baroque personal history as child pop star, actor and punk scenester, he’s too much the entertainer. So roll up for the new album by the UK’s greatest living acoustic biospherist.
“The Swift album is a huge collaboration,” says Simon. “Although it’s SFT with The Action Jackson Orchestra Perhaps, featuring Gilad Atzmon, it’s a massive collaboration. It was very much made by inviting people in to play. You don’t tell them what to play, you ask them if they’d be interested, and then they come in and you get them a coffee or glass of wine. It’s spontaneous, it’s improvised, but it ends up as something very well placed, very specific.
“Derek Jarman was a great reference for me because he didn’t tell any of us what to do. I like to play with people who are interested in playing. And it’s resulted in the best album I’ve ever made. But when I say ever made, I mean I’ve made it with all these collaborators.”
Originating with a notion that the normally anti-technology SFT should explore the capabilities of laptop computers, “Swift” took shape as a series of backing tracks before the cast of musicians were invited in. There’s a staggering diversity to the players involved. London Israeli jazz musician Gilad Atzmon was pivotal on clarinet and sax. His fellow countryman Asaf Sikris came in on percussion. Occasional Medieval Babe Dorothy Carter played hurdy gurdy and zither, and French electronic dance artiste Norsque supplied electronic rhythms.
The sound palette was further enhanced by Springheel Jack’s Ashley Wales, Japanese producer Aki Onda, video artist Doug Aitken and Australian electronic wiz Andie GK Reynolds. In addition to spoken and sung passages from Karen Thiel and Tali Atzmon, textural inlay from a teletextprinter and a small pebble, “Swift” benefits from the sound exchange scheme set up between SFT and the class he taught as visiting professor at Brunsweig University - aka The Action Jackson Orchestra Perhaps.
“It’s very much a marketplace, we’re bartering each others sounds against each other,” says piano, guitar and life sounds contributor Simon. “There’s a lot of giving and taking, as there always is in my music.”
The various perspectives of the contributors to “Swift” were honed by co-producer Kevin Paul (with SFT) into 20 tracks of amazing sound architecture. Defying contemporary genres “Swift” writes its own laws, each sound clash working as micro-journey. Moods shift throughout, from the beatific, to the nightmarish. There is sub bass and itchy syncopation, aquatic be bop deviance and looped organic narrative cut ups. But as industrial meshes with tribal, Zen infiltrates tech and warm polyphony gives way to slashed mechanics, a unity of purpose emerges. All tracks on “Swift” sound like new departures.
At 47, Simon Fisher Turner is too well traveled to be the author of sedentary music. He attended a choir school and learned clarinet and violin, but was more excited by early moog synthesisers than the prospect of a seat with the woodwind. From 14 to 24 he had a highly successful career as a child/young hopeful actor, appearing in movie and TV roles from Black Beauty to The Big Sleep (re-made with Robert Mitchum). At the same time, his teen years were coloured by an interlude fronting cheesy ’70s pop. Aged 17 he signed to Jonathan King’s UK Records and released the “not even novelty value” album “Simon Turner” in 69.
By 1974 Simon was starting to find his own direction. He left UK Records, and recorded a reggae single with Judge Dread. While his acting career kept him out of music, he was still a keen observer, getting blown away at early Ziggy Stardust shows and following Deep Purple and T Rex.
Way before punk rock inspired him to follow his own experimental inclinations, he had already brushed up against avant soundscapers.
“For me things got interesting when I got a tape recorder and I could record on my own,” he recalls. “I got to play with The Portsmouth Symphonia at the Albert Hall so I’m sitting next to Eno, who I knew from Roxy Music, and playing with an orchestra, none of whom can actually play properly. It was a great revelation. They were a freedom group really, but you had to play your best. If you laughed all the time you were fired.”
The late ’70s were a springboard for SFT’s later artistic adventures. Already gripped by early American electronic music from Terry Riley to Dick Hyman, he was in the thick of London punk, hanging out at the Vortex, getting kicked in the balls by Sid Vicious, carrying Johnny Thunders guitar and even bringing his Big Sleep co-star Robert Mitchum down to see Siouxsie And The Banshees.
Realising that he’d rather make music than act, SFT started to test things out in the margins. It would take a while. “Nothing went anywhere for a long time because I wasn’t doing punk rock I was doing things like long, 22 minute solo piano pieces. Everyone was thrashing about like crazy and I was getting slower and slower, going in the opposite direction, but having seen people like Lydon saying ‘You’ve got to stick to your guns’. I took his advice and eventually it paid off.”
As punk turned into new wave and new romanticism, Simon supported himself with a driving job. Typically, however, his passengers were not the regular fare. The management company he drove for looked after Adam Ant, and Simon hurtled up and down motorways with the dandy highwayman and Jordan on board. One of the company’s other charges was Derek Jarman, which lead to him working as a runner on The Tempest.
In 1980 he continued to expand his sonic horizons, securing a tenure as ‘Musician In Residence’ at the ICA. Another job, as a Press Officer for Cherry Red records connected him with The The’s Matt Johnson who has just finished his acclaimed “Burning Blue Soul” album, and briefly SFT took the stage with The The. The alliance didn’t last, but it supplied Simon with his next partner, Colin Lloyd Tucker, who also dropped out of The The. They formed their own label, Papier Mache, and released two albums as Deux Filles, a fictional French female duo, and one as Jeremy’s Secret.
“Pretending to be girls was the only way of getting a record out because no-one was interested in two boys playing extremely slow, quiet music,” says Simon. Although gradually being drawn more into Jarman’s activities, an embryonic solo album (with aid from Ashley Wales) of cut ups, collage, loops and drum machines - “The Bone Of Desire” - emerged before soundtracks temporarily claimed him.
“Derek was very good to me, “reflects Simon. “I never expected to do the music for the films and it was always peculiar and strange. But he was generous with his trust. He’d go ‘Alright here’s the film, I really see a big Russian choir and I hear lots of voices’ and he’d describe what he wanted to hear. And I’d say ‘We can’t do this and that’, and then he really just let me get on with it.”
Simon’s association with Jarman was lasting and massively fruitful. “Caravaggio”, “The Last Of England” (with contributions from Barry Adamson and Diamanda Galas), “The Garden” (with the Balanescu Quartet), and “Edward II”, were amongst the most innovative film sound projects of the ’80s and early ’90s, most of them surfacing as CDs though Mute. His final film with Jarman was the powerful, poignant “Blue”, where a soundscape recorded by Simon at Eno’s country house, plus Jarman’s AIDs inspired spoken words, stood in for the visuals - only a blue screen was projected. It won a Michael Powell Award.
SFT had proved himself to be at ease with avant garde movie projects, but he was not your rarified sonic pedant, isolated in his studio. He had toured “Blue” around the world, playing live improv shows. A separate, end of the ’80s incarnation as The King Of Luxembourg had seen him tour Japan, costumed up and playing covers of The Byrds and Public Image. Two King Of Luxembourg albums were released on El Records. In between touring outlandish projects and conspiring with Jarman he also put in long months as a casting consultant, sieving for ‘found people’ to act as movie extras.
SFT’s work providing music with films has continued unabated since Jarman’s death. 2002 finds him putting a band together for five days of recording to go with a BFI revival of Jean Genet’s 1950 homoerotic hymn ‘Un Chant D’Amour’. Offers steadily flowed and awards arrived throughout the ’90s. His ‘music by’ credits include Michael Almereyda’s lesbian vampire movie “Nadja”, the Anna Campion directed “Loaded”, Wolf and Water’s “Macbeth”, Lodge Kerrigan’s “Claire Dolan”, Mike Hodges “Croupier” and Paul McGuigan’s “Gangster No. 1”.
With decades worth of hands on experience to draw from, SFT is almost unique in having gone from trite pop to extreme sound freakery and out the other side into a mesmerising field of his own. From 1996’s “Shwarma” - sound plundered from around the world and loops by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert - to the de-funked funk and discombobulating accordions of 1999’s “Oh Venus” is a thread that zig zags crazily, but never snaps.
“Swift” too, has all the un-expectedness that you might expect from Fisher Turner.
“I’m a post-sound freak”, he explains. “I mean, I collect. I’ve got Gym shoes squeaking in an East German post office and things like that. I have a vast library, but I just ignore it. I used to be anal about it. I recorded my whole life, like a sound diary almost, had headphones on all the time and I just turned into an asshole, a sound freak. I was doing it and I didn’t really know why. But I’ve finished with all that now”.
“I tried to make this album not using atmospheres and not using tapes. As we went along they’d just creep in, because I can’t help it. But more and more I’m just getting interested in people who like to play.”
“We were trying to get somewhere without going too far. It was like getting to the end of the road and then not opening the gate, or getting to Beachy Head and not jumping off. Because I tend to go over the top. So in this case we didn’t want that. We were trying to… we were trying to make something that was interesting, and which pleased ourselves!”
“Swift”: the aural trip is to be accompanied by “Swift”: the DVD. After years of making noise to go with the camera tales of others, Simon has squared the circle, working with Adam Shepherd to put together mini films for each piece on “Swift”. Intermittently inspired by the work of Bill Viola, and Warhol, the bi-sensual version of “Swift” collates footage from around the world, ranging from stray Super 8 to images from six film makers including SFT.
The opening out of the ocular possibilities of his music may lead him into new forms of expression (it would be perfect irony for him to end up as a director) but they are unlikely to help pin down where Simon belongs. Like all great works SFT’s are wide open to interpretation.
“The album starts in Latin and ends in Hebrew,” he says. “The girl who did the Hebrew, Tali, she said ‘I’m not telling you what it’s about’. So I phoned her up and said I needed to know. So she said ‘OK, I’m in a desert… A car comes… And it picks me up… I get in the back seat and I fall asleep… And then I wake up and I feel him stroking the back of my neck…. And then I’m not telling you any more.’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ You hear this girl speaking Hebrew and I haven’t got a clue what she’s saying! But it doesn’t matter, its fantastic, it’s about character. It’s like trying to paint something and I did the main layer and you finish it with other things. Or a cooking analogy is fine. So this is like a good bouillabaisse or a twenty course meal.”
Or twenty bubbles, full of horizons. SFT: Eno’s tangentality; Lydon’s fuck you DIY; and Le Corbusier’s ability to evoke ‘the play of masses, brought together in light’. That’s a long way to have come for a teen pop idol novelty.
Not remotely dispensable. Play him quiet and loud.